The attack came after sunset in the quiet Iraqi village of Albu Bali, when gunmen from the Islamic State group entered the town and opened fire with automatic rifles.
“I heard the shots, I came out and I saw my nephew lying on the ground,” Ali Menwar recalled of the deadly violence that broke the local calm on December 19.
The group of Sunni Muslim extremists “arrived at around 8:15 pm and started shooting randomly,” said Abbas Mazhar Hussein, 34, another resident of the majority Shi’ite village.
As Menwar ran inside, bullets smashed into the wall around him and two grazed his neck, now scarred with angry red, before he could slam the door behind him.
Others were less lucky in the town of 5,000, about 70 kilometers (40 miles) north of the capital Baghdad.
“My son, my grandson and my cousins all fell as martyrs,” said Menwar’s neighbor Jabbar Alwan, his eyes brimming with tears.
“It is very painful,” said the old man, who lost four family members. “We didn’t expect this.”
When it was all over, eight people lay dead and another six wounded in Albu Bali.
None of the attackers have been captured.
– Fear of retaliation –
Iraq has come a long way since major fighting against Islamic State ended more than five years ago, ending its self-proclaimed “caliphate” that once spanned swathes of Iraq and Syria.
After a tough urban battle in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, forces backed by a US-led coalition declared victory over the Islamic State in the country in late 2017.
But the periodic attacks still claim lives among Iraq’s war-weary citizens who have endured decades of conflict that erupted especially after a 2003 US-led invasion that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein.
An Islamic State ambush on December 18 killed nine federal police officers in Kirkuk, 100 kilometers north of Baghdad, but all too often it is civilians who are the victims.
The residents of Albu Bali, like most Iraqis, are predominantly Shiites, a branch of Islam that Sunni IS extremists consider apostates and label “Rawafid” or “rejecters.”
In claiming the bloody attack on the Telegram messaging service, IS did not refer to civilians, but said it had targeted “rawafid militiamen”, a term used to describe members of the former Shi’ite-led paramilitary group Hashed al- Shaabi.
Sheikh Khalis Rashid, the local chief, said Iraq’s Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani called him after the attack and “pledged me to avoid any” violent retaliation.
Such reprisals would likely have taken the form of attacks on nearby majority-Sunni villages, sometimes accused of providing a safe haven for jihadists, the local chief said.
– ‘Gangster operations’ –
According to a police colonel who asked not to be named, “terrorists are hiding in the countryside and continue to attack sporadically.”
The municipality of Al-Khalis, where Albu Bali is located, is used as a “transit” area for jihadists, explained Mayor Uday al-Khadran.
The surrounding province of Diyala and neighboring Salaheddin are crossroads for jihadists into the autonomous region of Northern Kurdistan, which Khadran says is “not safe.”
A United Nations report last July estimated that “between 6,000 and 10,000” IS fighters remained in Iraq and Syria, “mainly concentrated in rural areas.”
According to Khadran, the group “is no longer conducting military operations or seizing territory.”
Instead, he called the Islamic State attacks “gangster operations,” noting that while there were security forces in the town at the time of the attack, there were insufficient military forces.
Since the bloody attack on Albu Bali, about 200 members of the army, police and Hashed forces have been stationed there, and surveillance cameras have been installed, the police colonel said.
But Alwan, the grieving resident, said villagers now live in fear of “another incident” and grimly predicted that “this was not the last.”